Ron Kray, the reincarnation of Attila the Hun or Genghis Khan? Worshipper of imperial legends: Churchill, Gordon of Khartoum and Lawrence of Arabia. Student of Al Capone, cultivator of gangster-chic: imagine this increasingly corpulent Kray swaddled in a purple dressing-gown attended-to by a private barber, chairing crime conferences in the kitchen of a Bethnal Green slum. A man with a penchant for Puccini, as well as young pricks. Public fascination with twins, brothers breaking taboo. Keep it in the family. Ron Kray, self-made legend. Racketeer. Murderer.
Born in 1933, Ron and his brother Reg exhibited a taste for violence extremely early; more so than other six-year-olds. Ron the more manic of these maturing sado-masochists; by the time he was sixteen, proficient in facial laceration via sheath knife. A taste for violence honed by boxing and national service. Boxing taught the twins how to fight, while their stint with the Royal Fusiliers instilled the principles of leadership, organization and weapons training.
Ron’s more dominant and disruptive nature was visible after his much longer recovery from the diphtheria and measles which the twins contracted at the tender age of three. Diseases which some argue may be linked to the paranoid schizophrenia afflicting Ron from his mid-twenties. A condition with violent associations aggravated by Ron’s mixing of the tranquilizer Stematol with heavy, some may say alcoholic, drinking.
All the above has been well documented, but it is to the social world in which the twins grew up to which we must look to explore, if not explain, their turn to violence. A world removed from the merry myth of the East End of yore. For while Ron’s favourite memory of his Aunt Rose may appear disturbing – “Coppers is like Germans. The only good one’s a dead one” – this expression evokes less emotion with the knowledge that an old children’s saying could still be heard on the streets of ’30s London: “If you know a good copper, kill him before he goes bad.” Coppers could be bastards, even in those glorious days before the war. Of his time walking the beats in 1930s Finsbury, ex-police sergeant Arthur Battle recollected:
The way in which the men at City Road dealt with the local ‘yobs’ was brought home to me very sharply one day. I left the station in company with PC 124 Joe Vincent to walk to our beats in the Goswell Road area. We turned right off Central Street into Bastwick Street, one of the least salubrious streets in the district. It had a very narrow pavement, with only room for the two of us to walk abreast. When we got near to the end of the street I saw four of the local “layabouts” standing outside a cafe on the narrow pavement. I was talking to Joe, a chap very near to the end of his service, all of which he had spent at the same station, and as we got close to the four on the pavement I casually stepped into the roadway to get by them. Joe decided otherwise. One of the “yobs” was standing with his back to us. Joe unhooked his tightly rolled cape from his belt, and hit the fellow on the backs of his legs, causing him to fall flat on the ground as he fell against the other three. Not a word was said by anyone. When he had passed by Joe hitched his cape back on his belt, and said so casually to me, “Never get in the road for those bastards. Shift ‘em!”
A world skirting the eastern fringes of the City, forming an arc from Whitechapel to Bethnal Green, through Hoxton, Clerkenwell to King’s Cross. A world of small-time crime in the form of thieving and fencing (passing on stolen goods) and “protection”. A world of the “villain”, whom the author, journalist and Kray confidante John Pearson describes as:
A fighter who lives on his reputation for not caring what he does or what happens to him. He makes a living any way he can, chiefly from lesser criminals. His weapon is intimidation. His virtues, such as they are, are “gameness” and an unconcern for money once he has it.
A world of crooked Cockneys, Anglo-Italians and Jews. Alliances formed, fractured and re-formed. Though a world which did not impinge visibly on the local community. Philosopher, broadcaster and SDP MP Bryan Magee remembered of his ‘30s childhood:
The locals, provided they kept their mouths shut, had nothing to fear from them, partly because most of the locals had nothing to steal anyway, but also because the criminals were usually careful to adhere to their well-known maxim, “Never shit on your own doorstep”. They took pains to keep their assaults on the law-abiding community away from the areas in which their own wives did the shopping and the children went to school. Nearly all the local violence – and there was a lot of it, much of it extreme – went on among the criminals themselves, and was to do with disputes over territory, the breaking of deals, the punishing of informers, and the paying off of personal scores.
Two East End villains held in high esteem by the young Ron included “Dodger” Mullins and Jimmy Spinks. Jack “Dodger” Mullins chalked up his first conviction as a 16 year-old in 1908 when he was jailed for wounding. Running protection rackets across Bethnal Green and possessing a flair for violence, Mullins was employed as a bodyguard for strike-breakers during the General Strike of 1926. Further notoriety was gained by Mullins’s involvement in the Dartmoor prison mutiny of 1932. Mullins was introduced to the twins by their father Charlie as “the old guvnor of the East End”.
Ron’s other hero, also known to his father, was Jimmy Spinks, great-uncle of hard man Lenny McLean of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels fame. Built like a bull and weighing around 20 stone, Spinks came to the fore of his Hoxton mob as the leading bare-knuckle fighter of his day. Violence written on his face, the tangle of razor scars were said to resemble the London Underground. McLean described Uncle Jimmy as “a ‘ten-man job’, because to bring him down you would have to go ten-handed or turn up with a shooter.” Spinks evoked such fear that Bryan Magee never forgot the childhood tale:
During a row with his girlfriend he had grabbed a heavy mirror off the wall and smashed her over the head with it and killed her, and her blood had splashed all over him. In a drunken panic, his first thought was to get away from the scene, so he ran out of the house and tried to get on a bus. When the bus conductor saw this wild-looking man, obviously drunk and covered with blood, stumbling to get his feet up on the platform, he refused to let him on, and pushed him away, and the bus pulled off without him. Several passengers saw this scene, which would not have been easily forgettable, so putting a case against Jimmy was essentially a matter of establishing the identification: was the blood-covered man that all these people saw Jimmy Spinks? None of the witnesses could say. Confronted with Jimmy, not a single one of them could remember.
Forever etched in legend is the story that “Jimmy Spinks ordered some fish and chips, and when they cut up rough because he wouldn’t pay, he threw the fish-shop cat in the frier.” As with all crime stories, beware fables with flimsy foundations told and re-told. Yet for some, the truth lies in the telling. A truth reborn with the Krays. In the words of John Pearson:
In their imagination they were re-creating their father’s world with their fights and secret wars and passionate vendettas, the old criminal fraternity of the East End, of Dodger Mullins, Jimmy Spinks and Wassle Newman – the world their mother hated. The reality had been bombed out of existence. When it arose the new East End would be a very different place, and the free-drinking, free-spending, dead-end cockney villain would be a figure of the past.
How did the Krays ascend from East End thuggery to the status of celebrity gangsters, courted by the great and good, accorded fear and respect, icons of the swinging Sixties?
- Arthur Battle, “The Job’s Not Like it Used to Be” (1972, unpublished manuscript deposited at the Metropolitan Police Historical Collection, Charlton)
- Ron Kray with Fred Dineage, My Story (London: Pan Books, 1994)
- Brian McDonald, Gangs of London: 100 Years of Mob Warfare (Wrea Green: Milo Books, 2010)
- Lenny McLean with Peter Gerrard, The Guv’nor (London: John Blake, 2003)
- Bryan Magee, Clouds of Glory: A Hoxton Childhood (London: Pimlico, 2004)
- Steve Myall, “Gangster Twins Ronnie and Reggie Kray ‘Had Secret Gay Sex with Each Other'”, Daily Mirror, 1 September 2015
- John Pearson, The Cult of Violence: The Untold Story of The Krays (London: Orion, 2001)
- __________ The Profession of Violence: The Rise and Fall of the Kray Twins(London: William Collins, 5th edn., 2015 )
- Jerry White, ‘Police and Public in London in the 1930s’, Oral History, 11, 2 (1983), 34-41